Pat's Lyric Tips

Making Metaphors

Metaphors are not user-friendly. They are difficult to find and difficult to use well. Unfortunately, metaphors are a mainstay of good lyric writing, indeed, of most creative writing. From total snores like "break my heart" and "feel the emptiness inside" to awakening shocks like "the arc of a love affair" (Paul Simon), "feather canyons" (Joni Mitchell), "soul with no leak at the seam" (Peter Gabriel), and "Brut and charisma poured from the shadows" (Steely Dan), metaphors support lyrics like bones. The trick is to know how to build them.

In its most basic form, metaphor is a collision between ideas that don't belong together. It jams them together and leaves us to struggle with the consequences, for example: an army is a rabid wolf

We watch the soldiers begin to snarl, grow snouts, and foam at the teeth. The army disappears and we are left to face something red-eyed and dangerous. Of course, an army isn't a wolf. All metaphors must be literally false. If the things we identify are the same, e.g., a house is a dwelling place,there is no metaphor, only definition. Conflict is essential for metaphor. Put things that don't belong together in the same room, and watch the friction: dog with wind; torture with car; cloud with river.

Interesting overtones. Let's look closer. There are three types of metaphor: 

Expressed Identity -- asserts an identity between two nouns (e.g., fear is a shadow; a cloud is a sailing ship). 

Expressed Identity comes in three forms,

"x is y" (fear is a shadow)
"the y of x " (the shadow of fear)
"x's y" (fear's shadow)

Run each of these through all three forms,

wind = yelping dog
wind = river
wind = highway

Now come up with a few of your own and run them through all three forms. You might even extend them into longer versions (e.g., clouds are sailing ships on rivers of wind).

Qualifying Metaphor -- Adjectives qualify nouns; adverbs qualify verbs. Friction within these relationships create metaphor (e.g., hasty clouds, or to sing blindly).

Verbal Metaphor -- formed by conflict between the verb and its subject and/or object (e.g., clouds sail; he tortured his clutch; frost gobbles summer down).

Aristotle says that the ability to see one thing as another is the only truly creative human act. Most of us have the creative spark to make metaphors, we just need to train and direct our energy properly.

 

Look at this metaphor from Shelley's, "Ode to the West Wind": 

"A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed / One too like thee..."

 

 Hours are links of a chain, accumulating weight and bending the old man's back lower and lower as each new hour is added. An interesting way to look at old age... 

Great metaphors seem to come in a flare of inspiration -- there is a moment of light and heat, and suddenly the writer sees the old man bent over, dragging a load of invisible hour-chains. But even if great metaphors come from inspiration, you can certainly prepare yourself for their flaring. Here are some exercises to train your vision; to help you learn to look in the hot places; to help you nurture a spark that can erupt into something bright and wonderful.

Playing in Keys

Like musical notes, words can group together in close relationships like belonging to the same key. Call this a diatonic relationship. For example, here are some random words that are diatonic to (in the same key as) tide; ocean, moon, recede, power, beach.

This is "playing in the key of tide," where tide is the fundamental tone. This is a way of creating collisions between elements that have at least some things in common -- a fertile ground for metaphor. There are many other keys "tide" can belong to when something else is a fundamental tone, for example, power. Let's play in its key: Muhammad Ali, avalanche, army, Wheaties, socket, tide.

All these words are related to each other by virtue of their relationship to "power." If we combine them into little collisions, we can often discover metaphors.

Muhammad Ali avalanched over his opponents.
An avalanche is an army of snow.
This army is the Wheaties of our revolution.
Wheaties plug your morning into a socket.
A socket holds back tides of electricity.

Try playing in the key of moon; stars, harvest, lovers, crescent, astronauts, calendar, tide.

The New Mexico sky is a rich harvest of stars.
Evening brings a harvest of lovers to the beach.
The lovers' feelings waned to a mere crescent.
The crescent of human knowledge grows with each astronaut's mission.
Astronaut's flights are a calendar of human courage.
A new calendar washes in a tide of opportunities.

Essentially, metaphor works by revealing some third thing that two ideas share in common. One good way of finding metaphors is by asking these two questions:

 

  1. What characteristics does my idea ("tide") have?

  2. What else has those characteristics?

 

Answering the second question usually releases a flood of possible metaphors.

Often the relationship between two ideas is not clear. "Muhammad Ali" is hardly the first idea that comes to mind with "avalanche," unless you recognize their linking term, "power." In most contexts, "Muhammad Ali" and "avalanche" are non-diatonic, unrelated to each other. Only when you look to find a link do you come up with "power," or "deadly," or "try to keep quiet when you're in their territories." Asking the two questions above opens up these relationships and helps you develop metaphor-seeking habits. Here are four exercises to help you get hooked.

Exercise 1:
Get a group together, at least four people. Divide the participants into 2 equal groups. Each member of group 1 makes an arbitrary list of five interesting adjectives. At the same time, each member of group two makes an arbitrary list of 5 interesting nouns. Then their arbitrary lists are combined, usually resulting in some pretty strange combinations.

 

For example,

Adjectives

smoky

refried

decaffeinated

hollow

understated

Nouns

conversation

railroad

rainbow

rainforest

eyebrows

Think about each combination for a minute. They evoke some interesting possibilities. Take any combination and try to write a sentence or short paragraph from it. Like this: "Since I got your phone call, everything seems dull. My day has been bleached of sound and color. Even the rainbow this afternoon has been decaffeinated."

Try writing a sentence or short paragraph for these combinations,

smoky conversation

refried railroad

hollow rainforest

understated eyebrows

Now jumble them up into different combinations (for example, smoky eyebrows) and write a sentence or short paragraph for each one. The point of the exercise is to see what overtones (linking ideas, metaphors) are released by this blind striking of notes. Wonderful accidents happen frequently.

Exercise 2:
Each member of group 1 makes an arbitrary list of five interesting verbs. At the same time, each member of group 2 makes an arbitrary list of 5 interesting nouns

 

Like these,

Nouns

squirrel

wood stove

surfboard

reef

aroma

Verbs

preaches

vomits

cancels

celebrates

palpitates

Again, take any combination and try to write a sentence or short paragraph from it. Like this: "The red squirrel scrambled onto the branch, rose to his haunches and began preaching to us, apparently cautioning us to respect the silence of his woodlands."

Your turn,

wood stove vomits

surfboard cancels

reef celebrates

aroma palpitates

Jumbling up the list unveils new combinations. Write a sentence or short paragraph for each one,

Nouns

squirrel

wood stove

surfboard

reef

aroma

Verbs​

celebrates

palpitates

preaches

cancels

vomits

If you don't already have a writer's group, these exercises might be a good reason to start one. Just get some people together (even numbers are best) and start making arbitrary lists. Put your lists together and see what your combinations suggest.

One thing becomes clear right away: you get better results from Exercise 2 (nouns and verbs) than from Exercise 1 (adjectives and nouns). Verbs are the power amplifiers of language. They drive it; set it in motion. Look at any of the great poets -- e.g.., Yeats, Frost, Sexton, Eliot. If you actually go through some poems and circle their verbs, you will see why the poems crackle with power. Great writers know where to look. They pay attention to their verbs.

Exercise 3:
Each member of group 1 makes an arbitrary list of five interesting nouns. At the same time, each member of group 2 also makes an arbitrary list of 5 interesting nouns. Like these:

Nouns

summer

ocean

thesaurus

Indian

shipwreck

Nouns

Rolls-Royce

savings account

paintbrush

beach ball

mattress

Remember the three forms of Expressed Identity, the first type of metaphor? Try these noun-noun collisions in each form.

 

For example,

 

Summer is a Rolls-Royce
the Rolls-Royce of summer
summer's Rolls Royce
Summer is the Rolls-Royce of the seasons.
Winter is gone. Time for another ride in the Rolls-Royce of summer.
Once again, summer's Rolls-Royce has collapsed into the iceboat of winter.

Your turn again. Use whatever form of Expressed Identity seems to work best. Write a sentence or short paragraph for the other four. 

 

Of course, these are great fun to jumble up. You can even jumble them within the same columns.

 

Try a sentence for each of these,

Nouns

summer

ocean

thesaurus

Indian

shipwreck

Nouns

mattress

paint brush

beach ball

Rolls-Royce

savings account

Exercise 4:
After you have spent a few sessions discovering accidental metaphors through Exercises 1, 2 and 3, you will be ready for the final exercise to activate the process: a 5-step exercise guaranteed to open your metaphorical eyes and keep them open.

Step One: make a list of five interesting adjectives. Then, for each one, find an interesting noun that creates a fresh, exciting metaphor. Take as long as you need for each adjective -- hours, even days. Keep it in your vision. Push it against every noun you see until you create a breathtaking collision. Be patient. Developing a habit of looking takes time. It is the quality of your metaphors and the accumulated hours of practice that count here, not speed. 

Remember that you can make vivid adjectives out of verbs: to wrinkle becomes the adjective wrinkled (wrinkled water) or wrinkling (the wrinkling hours.) These are called Participles. Remember?

Step Two: now make a list of five interesting nouns, and locate a terrific verb for each one. This will be harder, since you are used to looking at things in the world, not actions. Again, TAKE YOUR TIME. Develop a habit of mind that can see a doe stepping through the shallows as the water wrinkles into circles around her.

Step Three: make a list of five interesting verbs and track down a noun for each one. Most likely, you've never looked at the world from this angle before. You'll find it unnatural, challenging, and fun.

Step Four: make a list of five interesting nouns and find an adjective for each one. (Don't forget about participles.)

Step Five: make a list of five interesting nouns and find another noun for each one. Use whatever form of Expressed Identity you think works best.

This last step brings you full circle. You have looked at the world from the vantage point of nouns, verbs, and adjectives. (I left out adverbs as a matter of personal preference. I don't get much use out of them, especially when I am careful to find strong verbs. If you want to add them to the exercise, simply list five adverbs and find a verb for each one. Then reverse the process and start with a list of verbs.) This is the practical result: because you have developed a habit of looking, you will see countless opportunities to create metaphors in your writing. After all, you run into nouns, verbs and adjectives pretty frequently...

These exercises focus your creative attention on a practical way to find metaphors using Expressed Identity, Qualifying Metaphors and Verbal Metaphors.

 

You don't have to wait for a grand bolt of inspiration. Simply look at the word you're on, and ask,

 

  1. What characteristics does this idea have?

  2. What else has those characteristics?

 

Then watch ideas tumble out onto your page.

Simile

You learned in high school that the difference between metaphor and simile is that simile uses like or as. True enough, but that's like saying that measles are spots on your body. They are, but if you look deeper, the spots are there because a virus is present. There is something more fundamental going on. Remember the metaphor, an army is a rabid wolf? Say it to yourself and let the pictures roll. You start with army but your focus transfers to the rabid wolf, something red-eyed and dangerous.

Simile doesn't transfer focus: an army is like a rabid wolf. Say it to yourself and let the pictures roll. The army refuses to budge. No snouts or foamy teeth. We sit waiting for an explanation while the army stands before us in full uniform.

Look at this from Kurt Thompson:

My love is an engine

It ain't run in years

Just took one kiss from you

to loosen up the gears

My heart needs to rev some

It's an old Chevrolet

You might think it's Crazy

To want to race away

Who ever said

that love was smart

Baby won't you drive my heart

Won't you drive my heart

 

The metaphor sets up the car. The speaker is asking baby to get in and step on the accelerator. Now look at this version:

My love's like engine

It ain't run in years

Just took one kiss from you

to loosen up the gears

My heart needs to rev some

Like an old Chevrolet

You might think it's Crazy

To want to race away

Who ever said

that love was smart

Baby won't you drive my heart

Won't you drive my heart

Read it again and let the pictures roll. Now the focus stays on the speaker rather than transferring to the car. So the emphasis in "baby won't you drive my heart" is on heart rather than drive. It seems like a subtle difference, but it makes all the difference in how we hear the song. The metaphor creates a light, clever song. The simile is clever too, but more intimate, since we stay in the presence of the speaker throughout the song. 

Because simile refuses to transfer focus, it works in a totally different way than metaphor. Metaphor takes its second term (an army is a rabid dog) very seriously -- you must commit to it, because that's what everyone will end up looking at.

You needn't commit as deeply to the second term of the simile, since the first term gets most of the attention. This makes simile useful as a one-time event. In a line like "I'm as corny as Kansas in August," our focus stays on I. We have no further appetite for corn or Kansas. Good thing, since the rest of the song goes everywhere but Kansas. However, if the line had been "I am corn in Kansas in August," we'd expect to hear things about sun, rain, wind and harvest in the upcoming lines.

As a rule of thumb, when you have several comparisons in mind, use simile: 

Love is like rain

Love is like planting

Love is like the summer sun

When you're using only one comparison (e.g.,  Love is a rose) and you want to commit to it throughout the song, use metaphor. It only grows when it's on the vine.

© 2019 Pat Pattison